The best Finnish motorcycle racer of all time, and one of the greatest ever. Jarno Saarinen – 1945-1973

Jarno Saarinen was born in Turku in December 1945, and studied to become a mechanical engineer before taking up ice-racing, as much a kindergarten for Finnish bikers as go-karting is for the Grand Prix drivers of today. His mechanical expertise allowed him to maintain and trim his own bike in the early days of his racing career.

After completing his education, he joined the Grand Prix circuit (as a private entrant) in the late sixties, and in 1971 was second overall in the 350cc class and third in the 250cc class. In the following year he won the Road Racing World Championship at 250cc and was runner-up in the larger class. It does not take undue pessimism to say that it is unlikely we shall see another Finnish champion come to the top as quickly or under anything like the same circumstances, for the sport has changed a great deal in a quarter of a century.   

Today road racing is little different from Formula One, with large factory teams competing on million-dollar budgets, and team instructions are the order of the day. Privateers like Saarinen was in his early years have no chance of ever getting among the points. But in the 1970s, things were very different. As his brother Jari Saarinen recalls, “When Yamaha started to give Jarno orders, he threatened to go out and buy his own bike from an importer and race privately on it. Yamaha threw in the towel”.   

The 1971 Championship had come on a Yamaha bike, but officially Jarno Saarinen only became a team rider in the year after he won the World Championship, when Yamaha decided they had had enough of seeing him beat their own men and they hired him to ride for them in the 250cc and 500cc classes. The 1973 season could hardly have started better for the Finn. Few were surprised at the reigning champion’s win in the French GP on the smaller bike, but the fact that he also walked off with top honours in the 500, a new event for him, was definitely a shock to the sport’s established stars. Saarinen then repeated this feat at Salzburg in Austria, and would have made it three in a row at Hockenheim but for a broken chain that caused him to retire in the 500cc event. He had also taken time out in March to win the prestigious Daytona 200-mile race on an apparently underpowered 350cc Yamaha. At 27, Saarinen was fast becoming an international motorcycling giant.  

 The Italian Grand Prix at Monza was held on May 20th. The track had not been cleaned properly after an oil spillage in the previous event. Going into the very first bend of the 250cc race, Saarinen was challenging for the lead with Renzo Pasolini when the Italian hit a patch of oil and fell. Saarinen was right alongside him and could not avoid a collision, and a further 13 bikes crashed into the wreckage or went off the track. Saarinen and Pasolini were at the bottom of the heap, and both were killed instantly.   

Although Jarno Saarinen’s international career was relatively short, only five years, his fifteen wins and the way in which he achieved them built for him an almost legendary reputation. He was widely regarded as the only rider capable of challenging the great Giacomo Agostini, who was the brightest star in the sport. Saarinen not only had the skills to push Agostini hard, he had in fact beaten him on several occasions – including during the 1973 season.  

In those days Finland still had its own Road Racing Grand Prix event, held in Imatra, and bike racing was a very much more popular sport in this country than it is today. Saarinen was naturally a major spectator attraction on his home turf, and more than 50,000 turned out to see him win at Imatra in 1972. And yet ironically, Saarinen’s worth is still better known in the more traditional biking countries. In Italy, for instance, he was the object of adulation, and boys were named after him by admiring fathers. Perhaps the best-known of them is Jarno Trulli, currently driving in Formula One. Italy can also boast an active “Moto Club Jarno Saarinen” that bears his name and has a presence on the WWW.   

The exhibition at the Museum of Technology contains photographs from on and off the track, press cuttings, documentary films, and four of Jarno’s racing bikes. The most remarkable item is the complete collection of Saarinen’s racing trophies. They have been loaned to the museum by his mother, who cherishes her son’s memory with pride, and according to Jari Saarinen: “She has kept his room at home just as it was.”